Should Missouri felons have voting rights restored once they’re released from prison?

Under existing Missouri law, the voting rights of convicted felons aren’t restored until they complete their sentence, as well as probation or parole. Missouri lawmakers are considering a new measure to change that.

A bill introduced by State Rep. Bruce Franks, Jr., a Democrat from St. Louis, would restore voting rights for felons as soon as they are released from prison. The legislation is part of a larger package of criminal justice reform proposals that tackle issues ranging from expunging some marijuana possession offenses to offering community service to defendants who can’t afford to pay court fines and fees.

The proposal to restore voting rights for people with felony convictions once they leave prison has bipartisan support and deserves serious consideration. Republican lawmakers Holly Rehder of Sikeston and Jim Neely of Cameron are co-sponsors.

The Missouri legislation is gaining some traction amid a nationwide push to expand access to the ballot, as lawmakers across the country work to make voting easier for millions of Americans. Ending the disenfranchisement of felons gained significant momentum after voters in Florida approved a ballot measure in November to restore the voting rights of most felons.

Now lifting voting restrictions for certain convicted felons is gaining support in both Republican- and Democratic-leaning states.

“It’s unconscionable that people that have served their time can’t vote,” said DaRon McGee, a Democratic state representative from Kansas City.

Proponents of the Missouri legislation rightly argue that those who have been released from prison and are contributing members of society should have their voting rights restored. And overly restrictive laws preventing many with criminal records from voting have had a disproportionate impact on minority communities.

While the push to automatically reinstate the voting rights of most convicted felons once they’re released from prison deserves support, the sponsors of the measure should consider carving out exceptions for those convicted of murder and some felony sex offenses, as several other states have.

Convicted murderers and felony sex offenders in Florida must apply to the governor for the restoration of their voting rights. In Tennessee, a person convicted of murder, rape, treason or voter fraud only regains voting rights through a pardon.

Under current Missouri law, only those convicted of election-related offenses are permanently disenfranchised unless pardoned by the governor.

Exempting murderers and felony sex offenders from the proposed measure could help build the bipartisan support needed to win approval in the Republican-controlled legislature.

In Missouri, where close to 60,000 offenders are under probation and parole supervision, promptly restoring voting rights to convicted felons once they’re released from prison is a needed fix to state law.

As Franks has argued, people on probation or parole who have served their time have rights and responsibilities. They can pay taxes and become upstanding citizens, but they still can’t vote. Missouri lawmakers should change that.